Future of USAFRICOM: Economics over security

Future of USAFRICOM: Economics over security

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo finally made his first visit to the African continent – some 18 months after taking up his position as head of the State Department. Considering the Trump administration’s obsession with tackling radical Islamist terrorism, the delay in visiting key African partners should raise questions about the US commitment to fighting the various ongoing insurgencies in the sub-Saharan Africa region. 

The Future of USAFRICOM

The start of 2020 saw US tensions with long-term foe Iran escalate to a near-critical level after American airstrikes targeted Baghdad International Airport killing the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Qassim Soleimani. As a result of this action and the consequent Iranian air strikes against US bases in Iraq, it is highly likely that the US Department of Defense and the State Department will begin to divert resources away from regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and back towards containing Iranian activities in the Middle East.

What makes this even more likely is the impending US presidential election in which Trump is likely to play up military action against Iran as a rallying cry to his core supporters whilst also providing a distraction to the world’s media who would assess his achievements in office. 

Therefore, US-Iran tensions will undermine the fight against terrorism because cuts to the US Africa Command (USAFRICOM), which will be seen as vital to Iranian containment, will be made at a time when numerous Islamist insurgencies are gaining momentum across sub-Saharan Africa. 

According to USAFRICOM’s Commander, Gen. Thomas Walthauser, the organisation has been instructed to cut 600 troops in two phases. The first phase is due to be completed by June 2020 with the second wave of cuts being finalised by January 2022. 

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference Walthauser told journalists that:

“We all realise, you know, Africa, with regards to the prioritisation of our national interests… there’s no doubt about the fact that that it’s, you know, it’s not number one on the list.”

The Rising Tide of Terror

According to the Institute of Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index 2019, several African nations saw significant increases in their exposure to terrorist violence. This included Burkina Faso (+10), Mali (+9) and Mozambique (+15) demonstrating a failure of national governments to effectively implement a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy.

Consequently, the decision to withdraw AFRICOM resources including training and support of African armed forces will have a negative effect on the ability of African governments to tackle the threat posed by violent non-state actors.

Alongside rising terrorism in the above states, Nigeria continues to face Boko Haram across the north-east, Cameroon faces anglophone separatists, Somalia remains torn apart from Al-Shabab and rebel groups in Kivu province of the DRC continue to target communities affected by an Ebola epidemic. The very fact that Secretary Pompeo avoided these states suggests that the motive behind his first visit was not to reaffirm the US commitment to stabilising the plethora of security crises facing the continent but was intended to improve economic cooperation.

Economics over Security

In visiting Angola, Ethiopia and Senegal, Pompeo’s trip implies that the Trump administration’s priorities for Africa are to secure economic cooperation with the intention of countering the growing influence of both China and Russia in the region.

During his trip, Pompeo met with Senegal’s President Macky Sall to discuss trade and investment opportunities. Following their meeting, the Secretary of State said:

‘We did have a lot of conversation about security issues here, about America’s role in those. We’ve made it clear that the Department of Defense is looking at West Africa to make sure we have our force levels right.’

However, the comments made by Walthauser suggest that the reality about the US continuing to provide the current level of support to tackling terrorism in West Africa is likely to be reduced as AFRICOM is downsized.

After Senegal, Pompeo visited the oil-rich nation of Angola where he praised President Joao Lourenco’s efforts to tackle corruption in the Angolan economy. The emphasis of the anti-corruption driving during his visit is likely to signal to US investors that Angola is an increasingly attractive place for American companies to expand and invest in. 

Finally, after meeting with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Zewde Sahle-Work, Pompeo publicly warned African states about his perceived danger in relying on Chinese investment for large infrastructure projects and questioned their long-term sustainability. These warnings are likely to become strong in the coming months as Trump criticises China’s international influence in the lead up to the 2020 presidential elections and we could see the US threaten African states for continued economic cooperation with China. 

In Conclusion

The African Growth and Opportunity Act which allows numerous states to export products to the US without trade barriers such as tariffs and quotas is set to expire in 2025. The recent announcement that Kenya will sign a new Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the US government further implies that the act will not be renewed as it previously was by President Barack Obama in 2015. Should African nations continue to allow large Chinese-led investments in their economies, Trump’s likely second term in office could see a significant change in the US economic strategy across the continent. 

Having not visited Africa for a year and a half after taking office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has signalled that Africa is not a top priority for the Trump administration – a claim highlighted by Gen. Walthauser earlier this month. Planned cuts to AFRICOM are going to leave a significant gap in training and support available to African militaries that will open up new opportunities for China and Russia to fill the void the left behind. Should this be the case, US economic cooperation with states receiving Chinese and Russian military assistance will cease. 

Categories: Africa, Risk Pulse

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